Golden Retrievers: Are They Hard to Train?


When thinking of dogs that are hard to train, I suspect that for most people, the Golden Retriever is not the first dog that springs to mind.

Instead, Golden Retrievers are most often perceived as friendly, smart, and easy to train.

But perception does not always equal reality, so it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Golden Retrievers are a hard or easy to train dog breed?  

Golden Retrievers are not hard to train. The breed’s high intelligence and food motivation, combined with their eagerness to please, makes them one of the easiest to train dog breeds. In addition, research has shown that Goldens learn commands quickly and that they possess a very high level of obedience. 

It should come as little surprise that Golden Retrievers are easy to train. Goldens make excellent service dogs and do very well in obedience, rally, dock diving, and other canine sports.

The breed’s ability to excel in those endeavors comes from an interplay of traits that makes it well suited to learning things quickly and with exceptionally high retention and obedience rates. 

Like most dogs that are easier to train, the Golden Retriever seems to possess certain traits that make it more inclined to train more quickly. 

What Traits Makes a Golden Retriever Highly Trainable? 

The four most intelligent dogs are the Border Collie, Poodle, German Shepherd, and Golden Retriever. The Golden’s cousin, the Labrador Retriever (most popular dog in North America), is a respectable 7th.

A common characteristic among all these dogs is their ability to be trained rather easily. So, in discussing the Golden Retriever specifically, what are the traits that make this breed easy to train?

Let’s see.

High Intelligence

It appears that at the heart of what makes a dog highly trainable is intelligence.

Research conducted by Stanley Coren on dog intelligence found that Golden Retrievers are the fourth most intelligent dogs.

Top-tier dogs learn commands within an average of five repetitions and are obedient 95% of the time, this ease of trainability is directly associated with intelligence.

It’s not surprising then that each of the top four dogs ranked in intelligence is renowned for their ease of trainability.

While intelligent dogs can also be stubborn (I would suspect that has to do more with independence and personality), there is no doubt that lack of intelligence makes the training task more difficult.

High Food Motivation 

Golden Retrievers are very food motivated. They seem to be always hungry and will eat almost anything you put in front of them.

While that food drive can make them prone to weight gain, owners will have to ensure they watch food intake; it also makes them ideal for reward-based training methods. 

Dogs such as the Golden and Labrador Retriever with an exceptionally high food drive are well-suited to training that incorporates food as a reward.

Combined with an eagerness to please (discussed next) and high intelligence, a high food drive makes training a Golden Retrieve much easier.

Eager To Please

Golden Retrievers make excellent family dogs. The Golden is loving, trustworthy, and patient, but they’re also very eager to please.

Eager to please is not only a desirable trait in a family dog, but it makes training much easier as well.

How so?

The more a dog is eager to please its owner, the more it will work to gain your approval. And that eagerness to please can drive motivation.

Ask any teacher, and I’m sure they will tell you that an eager-to-learn student is much easier to work with than one that is not.

A Golden Retriever’s eagerness to seek approval from its owner makes it a very motivated pupil. And, a motivated canine pupil is what every dog trainer desires. 

At What Age Should I Start Training a Golden Retriever? 

The age at which training occurs is much less important than ensuring consistent and ongoing training occurs when your new dog arrives. So while an older Golden Retriever may not learn as fast as a puppy, they are still very capable of learning.

As a general rule, Golden Retrievers should undergo training as soon as you get them home. For new puppies, that typically will mean around eight weeks of age. If adopting an older Golden Retriever, training should also commence as soon as possible. Training in some form should continue for the life of your Golden Retriever.

When bringing a new Golden Retriever home, whether a puppy or older dog, give the dog some time to acclimate to the new environment before beginning any formal training. 

Once the new dog has become familiar and comfortable in its new environment, then training can begin.

For puppies, it’s often best that the first week is focused on potty and crate training, a bedtime routine, and establishing a bond of trust with your new Golden puppy.

Suppose you plan on returning to work and leaving your Golden Retriever puppy alone. In that case, you’ll need to do some planning beforehand to ensure training proceeds smoothly while juggling work.

If you’re wondering how to raise your Golden Retriever puppy while working, then give this post a read:

Raising a Golden Retriever Puppy While Working: Guilt-Free Solutions

If possible, take the first week off or work when bringing your puppy home to ensure you can prepare your Golden adequately to be left alone. 

If you’ve adopted an older Golden Retriever, then you can start the training immediately upon the dog coming home.

However, an older Golden may already know some commands, and you’ll need to figure out what those are and how well it responds to each.

Training in some form should proceed throughout a Golden Retriever’s life, whether it’s teaching an old dog new tricks or reinforcing already established commands.

And yes, a Golden Retriever, regardless of age, can always learn new things. It may take a little longer and require more patience, but Golden Retrievers can learn well at any age. 

What Commands Should I Teach a Golden Retriever?

When teaching your Golden Retriever commands, there are a few that are considered “basic” commands.

Golden Retrievers should be taught all basic skills as part of obedience training consisting of the following:

Dog trainer Zak George recommends the “look at me” command as the first thing you should teach your dog.

“Look at me” lays the foundation for communication and for your dog to focus and look at you in any situation, including those with distractions.

Some trainers do not include “look at me” in the list of basic commands. However, focus and communication are essential habits in the learning process, so it makes sense to engrain them in your dog as early as possible. 

Bailey doing a sit, leave it and look at me combo. This took about a week for him to learn.

What Method Should I Use for Training a Golden Retriever?

Golden Retrievers are sensitive dogs and do not do well with harsh physical corrections or yelling.

If you don’t appreciate someone laying hands on you or shouting, rest assured your dog doesn’t. Doing so can make your training more difficult if your Golden learns to fear you.

So what method is best?

Positive-based training methods are the best way to train a Golden Retriever. Instead, the breed’s friendly nature and eagerness to please its owners, combined with a high food drive and intelligence, make them very well suited to positive-based training methods.

Punishment-based training methods relying on the outdated dominance theory and are inhumane and ineffective. Those methods also include using tools to cause discomfort or pain (e.g., choke chains, shock collars, etc.).

Punishment-based methods make your dog extremely uncomfortable and fearful. This is because those methods are based on “forcing” your dog to do something versus your dog “wanting” to do it.

Many organizations, such as the American Veterinarian Society of Animal Behaviour, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Associate of Animal Behaviour Consultants, and countless other organizations, oppose dominance theory when working with animals. 

Golden Retrievers are eager to please and willingly want to learn.  So, positive-reward-based training should be the method of choice when training your Golden Retriever.

Notable dog trainers like Dr. Ian Dunbar, Patricia McConnell, Zak George, Brandon McMillian, Karen Pryor, Jean Donaldson, and many, many more advocate and use positive-reward-based training, and so should you.

Positive methods are science-based, humane, and is based on working with your dog to build mutual communication and trust. 

Hold up. If you’re interested in reading why positive training methods are best for your Golden Retriever, then check out this article I wrote: Dog Training Methods: Which One is Best for Golden Retrievers? After reading it, I hope you will understand why I believe scientific-based positive methods are the way to go for training a Golden Retriever.

What Are Some Common Obstacles in Training a Golden Retriever?

When training a Golden Retriever, any dog for that matter, there may be some common obstacles that you encounter that can make teaching a challenge. Knowing what to expect beforehand helps prepare to address these obstacles. 

When training a Golden Retriever, common obstacles include finding adequate time for training, lack of patience, regression, and moving too quickly. Time must be taken to teach and reinforce skills, and training should be done methodically and deliberately. Setbacks are normal, so be patient.

Time

You’ll need to carve out time daily to teach your Golden Retriever. Unfortunately, there is no way around that unless you plan on hiring someone to do it for you. 

With commitments such as work, kids, and running a household, often finding time for training the dog is not easy. However, because Golden Retrievers learn so quickly, all it takes is 20 minutes to an hour each day.

After six months to a year, your dog should have a great foundation of training that you can carry forward for the rest of your life.  

Make sure you have the time for training. If you find your lifestyle doesn’t allow adequate time for training, consider holding off getting a dog until you have more time, or consider outsourcing this task to a third party. 

Patience

Dogs can’t read our minds, and they don’t understand English, so don’t expect that they will know what you want immediately. We have to show them.

Moreover, more complex commands take extra time due to their more challenging nature. The more patient you can be with your Golden Retriever, the quicker it will learn. 

Your Golden will need time to learn, and some commands will come easier than others.

Bailey in a down and stay in the backyard at a distance. We’re working on his skills in more distracting environments now, which requires added patience.

Regression 

Expect some regression when training.

It’s not uncommon for your Golden Retriever to learn something exceptionally well, only to forget it a week later. Or they’ll do a command perfectly during one training session and have difficulty with it in the next.

Nor is it unusual for an adolescent Golden to rebel and become stubborn and decide not to listen. It’s all normal and part of the learning process.

To learn more about how active Golden Retriever puppies are at their various stages of development, check out this post:

How Active Are Golden Retriever Puppies? (What You Need to Know)

As discussed above, stay patient and keep a consistent training schedule, and you’ll achieve success. 

Moving Too Quickly 

Common mistakes dog owners make when training their Golden Retriever is moving too quickly or expecting too much.

If your dog is not getting a command, then it’s most likely because you’re asking too much of them.

If a training session is not going particularly well, then stop and try again later. Or, if your Golden is struggling with learning a specific command, you may need to break it down into smaller steps and move slower and more methodically.  

Think of it this way; your Golden Retriever won’t be able to get from A to Z without going through each letter in between first. And it can often be a gradual and slow process.

But trust me that it will be a very gratifying day when your Golden has learned the whole alphabet.

You’ll achieve success sooner if you go slowly, exercise patience, allocate consistent time to daily training, and expect setbacks. 

Final Thoughts

Most Golden Retrievers are not hard to train. On the contrary, they are well-suited to learning and make great pupils.

Your job is to be a great teacher and incorporate positive training techniques, patience, and consistent time to training.

If you do so, your reward will be a well-trained companion for years to come. 

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